Maeve Brennan, like her fellow New Yorker writer Mary Lavin, is one of those Irish writers that everyone should have heard of, but whose body of work hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
In Wit, Style and Tragedy: an Irish Writer in New York, Angela Bourke aims to redress that balance and to return Maeve Brennan to her rightful place as one of the best writers to grace not only the pages of The New Yorker (where she wrote for almost 30 years) but also one of the best writers that Ireland has ever produced.
Maeve Brennan, intelligent and striking, is best known for her work at The New Yorker, where she wrote from 1954 to 1981. Originally a fashion writer for Harper’s Bazaar, she became a staffer at The New Yorker during its heyday, writing a column under the pseudonym ‘The Long-Winded Lady’. Brennan wrote witty, peerless sketches of New York life and her work was championed by editor William Maxwell.
The magazine also published Maeve’s short stories, and in direct contrast to her columns, her stories almost always focus on Ireland, the country she left behind at the age of 17. What emerges, from Brennan’s work, and from the pages of this thorough biography, is a woman forever uprooted – a ‘traveller-in-residence’ – always homesick for a place she could never return to, her ‘imagination’s home’.
Angela Bourke’s biography opens in Ireland and explores the lives of Maeve Brennan’s grandparents and parents. This may seem indulgent, but, given the importance of place and family in Maeve’s later stories and the autobiographical nature of her work, it is a necessary starting point.
It helps too that her family background is so colourful, spanning as it does, some of the most important moments in Irish history. Brennan’s father was involved in revolutionary activities and at the time of her birth, in 1917, was in prison for his part in the Easter Rising. Her childhood was full of police raids, secrecy and spells of absence while her father was incarcerated. Her father was also a playwright and as such, the family were known to, and knew many of the great writers and politicians of the time.
When Maeve was 17, the family emigrated to America when her father was appointed as Secretary of the Irish Legation in Washington. As a smart and beautiful diplomat’s daughter, Maeve took to life in the States with aplomb and eventually moved to New York, staying there when the family eventually returned to Ireland.
In New York, her rise was steady. At The New Yorker she was feted for both her writing and her style. She was friends with Edward Albee and shared a working space with Saul Bellow. A favourite of the editor William Maxwell, she was allowed space to work on her own stories alongside the popular columns that made her name. Yet something went wrong.
Brennan was notoriously bad with money and was never able to create a sense of permanence in her life. She lived in hotel rooms, put down deposits on apartments she never ended up living in and often relied on the kindness of friends who let them stay with her. She had a brief but somewhat disastrous marriage to fellow writer St Clair McKelway, whose drinking and matching inability to manage money made things worse for Maeve. She was invariably financially bailed out by The New Yorker throughout her life, even when her writing for them became sporadic.
Trips home to Ireland to visit her family only made her see how much she did not fit in there anymore and this inability to fit in seems to have become the defining feature of Maeve’s life. As her lead character Anastasia says in her novel The Visitor;
Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memories, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness…Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward.
Angela Bourke’s biography is thoroughly researched and steeped in the social and economic history of the time. The reader learns as much about the history of Ireland in the early 19th century and the workings of The New Yorker in the 1950s and 60s as we do about Maeve and her work.
Bourke successfully ties everything in Maeve’s life back to her writing and the literary criticism here is sharp and focused, illuminating a writer who was trying to understand her conflicted feelings for her upbringing through her writing. Throughout the book, Bourke notes how Brennan’s stories in The Springs of Affection are tied strongly to her upbringing in Ireland, while others like those collected in The Rose Garden, focus on her time living in upstate New York.
Maeve may not have found a place to stay rooted in from a personal point of view, but her work is always anchored somewhere very specific. It is as if she can only find a sense of belonging within her writing.
As detailed as the biography is, Maeve remains a somewhat elusive presence. By all accounts, she was a very private woman in real life, and this comes across on the page. As her life starts to unravel in later years, through mental illness and even brief periods of homelessness (she was allowed to sleep in The New Yorker offices) the reality of her life, or even Maeve as a person, never really becomes clear.
There is a shadowy sense of unknowing at the heart of her painful downfall and it is a shame that there is not more detail on how this glamourous successful woman fell into such tragic destitution.
What does come across though, is Maeve’s love of writing. Through divorce, illness and financial hardship, she never stopped writing and Bourke avoids concentrating on the more lurid aspects of Maeve’s later life to keep the attention on the stories that have made her name.
In her short story, The Joker, set at Christmas time, Brennan describes lonely people she calls ‘waifs,’ but could easily have been describing herself.
When do people get that fateful separate look? Are waifs born? Waifs were simply people who had been squeezed off the train because there was no room for them. They had lost their tickets. Some of them never owned a ticket.
It would be impossible to know why or when Maeve lost her ticket, and Bourke does not speculate. Wit, Style and Tragedy: an Irish Writer in New York is the definitive biography of Maeve Brennan. It is hard to imagine anyone doing a more thorough job of highlighting the importance and brilliance of Brennan’s work, or her influence in creating a distinctive female voice in the masculine environs of The New Yorker at that time.
However, Maeve, the person, remains at a distance – a kind of anti-Cinderella who lost everything but still left us so much.
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About the Author:
Angela Bourke is a Senior Lecturer in Modern Irish at University College Dublin and Member of the Royal Irish Academy. She has published widely on oral culture and literature, including two books Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (1983), a study of the Crucifixion in oral religious poetry, and The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (1999), a critically acclaimed cultural history of how a young Tipperary woman came to be burned to death by her relatives in 1895.
Angela was one of the editors of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vols iv and v: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002) and is also the author of a well-received collection of short-stories, By Salt Water (1996). A highly regarded teacher, she has previously been a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, and has taught graduate students at Boston College.
You can listen to a podcast from The Irish Times with Angela Bourke here
Links to Maeve Brennan’s work for The New Yorker can be found in their archive on their website
Anne Enright has written a great article on Maeve for The Guardian
Fintan O’Toole also talked about the legacy of Maeve Brennan in The Irish Times
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